Co-operation is key to tackling labelling debacle

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Agriculture Minister Michelle O’Neill has said that co-operation across the island is vital in addressing the recent issues facing lamb farmers after the introduction of new EU regulations on Country of Origin Labelling (CoOL).

Minister O’Neill said she was concerned by the issue and had been working closely with her counterpart in the south – Minister of Agriculture, Food and the Marine Simon Coveney – to agree a way forward which would help ensure a fair deal for both farmers and processors.

She said: “Traditionally, we have a healthy north-south lamb trade which has benefited the industry across Ireland.

“However, the introduction of new EU labelling rules, appears to have adversely affected farmers in the north, with some processors reluctant to accept their lambs. Through discussions with farming and processor representatives, my officials have been assessing the impact of the new regulation and other contributing factors, such as the euro/sterling exchange rate.”

Minister O’Neill confirmed that she would continue to work with the industry and stakeholders in Northern Ireland and with senior figures in Dublin, London and Brussels in an effort to find a solution.

She added: “I have raised the issue with Minister Coveney and we have tasked officials with looking at whether we can agree additional voluntary labelling, which would support the industry across the island and also improve the information available to the customer. Furthermore, I would encourage major retailers and food service businesses, across the island and beyond, to accept all-Ireland origin products.

“My officials have also had discussions with the Food Standards Agency in the north and with British food officials on the impact of country of origin labelling and the scope for solutions, including voluntary labelling.

“I intend to write to the Secretary of State at the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Liz Truss, firstly, to highlight the difficulties for our industry here and, secondly, to emphasise the need for maximum flexibility in labelling products from the north.

“I have already raised this issue face to face with EU Commissioner Phil Hogan when he was in Belfast and I am determined to continue lobbying the Commission. I will highlight the inherent problems of the labelling regulations and will robustly make the case for our unique circumstances to be taken into consideration.”

The minister concluded by encouraging those within the industry in Northern Ireland to make their voices heard.

She said: “The Food Standards Agency is currently consulting on enforcement of the regulations and I would encourage farmers, and other interested parties, to respond by sharing their experience of the impact of the new rules.”

Meanwhile MEP Jim Nicholson is meeting with members of Commissioner Hogan’s team today (Wednesday) to discuss possible ways to find a resolution to the new labelling legislation which is having an impact on the cross-border sheep trade.

He said: “The cross-border trade in hoggets and lambs is crucially important for Northern Ireland’s sheep farmers.

“There is a degree of uncertainty regarding the new labelling rules which is causing disruption – of course the weak Euro is also partly to blame for falling demand from factories in the Republic of Ireland. In addition, from speaking with farmers there is a feeling that processors are also using the labelling issue as an opportunity to push down prices.

“Sheep farmers will be facing serious losses if the trade continues to be disrupted and depressed to such a degree especially during the peak season for lamb sales.

“The purpose of my meeting with the farm commissioner is to discuss the impact of the new labelling rules on trade and to explore possible solutions to this problem with key members of Commissioner Hogan’s team.”